Zwiller: ZeLO’s CFP predictions, Week 9 picks

Two weeks ago, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, Penn State and UCLA were all undefeated. Tennessee fans had not yet torn down the literal uprights and taken them outside the stadium. And Notre Dame had not yet lost to Stanford (sorry). 

Something that has not changed is ZeLO’s continued first-year success. In Week 7, ZeLO went 37-16 compared to FPI’s 36-17 outing. FPI did strike back in Week 8, picking 36-17 again. ZeLO dropped a few close contests, like Pitt at Louisville and Ole Miss at LSU, and went 33-20. 

Though the loss was disappointing, ZeLO has been on a hot streak. From Week 4 to Week 7, ZeLO out picked FPI straight up and is tied from Week 4 to 8. Though FPI is 413-125 (76.8%) and ZeLO 396-144 (73.3%), I think the two models are closer than their records might suggest. 

As the season has progressed deeper into conference play, with fewer Group of 5 vs. Power 5 matchups, ZeLO has become much more competitive. Early in the season, I wrote that the Power 5 vs. Group 5 problem was one of ZeLOs biggest flaws, and as we have seen fewer of those matchups, ZeLO has been able to close the gap. 

However, that is a topic for next week. This week I want to debut a new feature I built into ZeLO and talk about the results I got back. 

One of the more silent problems ZeLO has had this season is how highly it touted some of the more substantial Group of 5 teams. This bled through in the model’s propensity to treat Power 5 teams and Group 5 teams as equals in game picks, but it also led to teams like JMU being highly ranked in ZeLOs Power Rankings. 

And even when JMU was 5-0, they were, at best, a new young Group of 5 team, certainly not someone who was a peer to teams with legitimate championship aspirations.

To fix this problem, I looked at teams’ strength of schedule (SOS) and current records to reward teams with demanding schedules. 

However, I also wanted the new metric to capture current projections to reward teams expected to do well in the future against a strict schedule. Think Georgia, who has one of the toughest remaining SOS but is still expected to win the SEC. Georgia had a low-quality early schedule, but their schedule is good overall, so they should be rewarded for that.

This system served to help lift Power 5 teams, and the initial rankings showed that. To further boost P5 teams, I decided to factor in winning conference divisions and championships, weighting the Power 5 Divisions and Titles as double that of the G5.

I also added a ranking component to help with ZeLO’s win-loss blindspot. The average voter will rank Tennessee higher than Alabama because of a head-to-head result, but ZeLO still has the Tide as the better team, statistically. So, it made sense to factor in outside evaluations of teams to help nudge ZeLO in the right direction. 

The Undefeated

The top three are likely unsurprising to any college football fan: Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson. All three are undefeated and projected to finish undefeated by ZeLO. As a result, all three should make their conference championship games; and win it. Hard to argue with that. 

The Defeated Champs

Fourth is the surprise team of the year, TCU … a surprise to everyone except ZeLO. TCU was one of the teams that ZeLO loved that I could not understand. It worked out pretty well for ZeLO. So why is TCU not in the category above with the powerhouses? Well, ZeLO has them losing at least one game down the stretch. That hurts their case to make the CFP, so they take a bit of a bump.

Also in this category is Oregon, though the Ducks were shellacked at the start of the season when they lost to Georgia, so their margin for error is zero. ZeLO has them running the table, with their main roadblock being Utah. Assuming Georgia wins out, the atrocious loss should at least be excusable. 

Outside Looking In

Leading the category are Tennessee and Michigan, who are both projected to lose to their eventual conference champion. The two teams are spared losing in their conference championship and end the season with excellent what-if potential as a one-loss squad. 

Next is Alabama, who is hurt by the fact that while they would make their conference championship game, the trip should be a loss, making Alabama a two-loss team. The Tide are still a strong squad, so they are 8th, needing either an upset of Georgia or the CFP Committee to break its tradition of only letting in 1-loss teams. 

Following Bama are Oklahoma State and Penn State, two teams who will finish with losses (three for the Cowboys and two for the Nittany Lions) but with solid showings overall. PSU will finish with a loss to Michigan and Oklahoma State. will finish as conference runners-up.

Finally, USC. The Trojans are a good team that should miss their conference championship, taking a loss at some point to either UCLA or Notre Dame. They will be a solid two-loss team without the credit of being Alabama. I completely buy that the Trojans are better than where ZeLO is projecting them, and they could run the table and compete for a conference title. In that case, they would be the underdog in that matchup, making them a two-loss team, so either way, a solid two-loss team.

Week 9 Picks

Notre Dame @ Syracuse

Notre Dame (who ranks 57th in ZeLO’s CFP Projections) is both a Vegas underdog and a ZeLO underdog. Syracuse is a good team, even if they lost to Clemson, and they have home field. ZeLO has Syracuse as one of the top-15 defensive teams in the country, something Notre Dame’s offense-ranked 71st will struggle with. On the flip side, Notre Dame’s defense should be able to limit Syracuse’s offense. I think this one will be a low scoring affair that ND can win, but ZeLO gives them just a 31% chance to do so. 

No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 13 Penn State

This game might not seem worth paying attention to (see the -15.5 Ohio State spread). When Michigan beat Penn State 41-17, that felt like the end of the season for the Nittany Lions. But the Lions are hosting this time, and home field advantage makes this one interesting. ZeLO has the Buckeyes with a 73.6% chance of winning, so a far cry from a close match. But one worth watching nonetheless.

Contact Tom Zwiller at


ZLO predictions week 3

College football was in rare form last weekend. With Texas being back (maybe), the Sun Belt Conference won three massive games (and got paid $4.5 million to do it) and there were countless overtimes. The weekend was a little more chaotic than usual, with FPI picking 67-15 (.817) and ZeLO going 62-20 (.757), but still good picking weekends all the same. 

Before getting to my picks, there is one crucial thing to note about this week’s column. Last week I said I would be running the first four weeks of the season off of my original projections. I lied. Well, sort of.

After last weekend, I decided to try and blend the stats I had projected with the actual stats that the teams have generated. The main reason for this was USC (though I suppose ND contributed to the change negatively, but let’s not talk about that). 

ZeLO had them as a mediocre team, but the Trojans are putting up some solid numbers, and deserve credit for them. So, from now until about Week 5, I will be operating with a mixed rating for each team, with the projections getting less weight as time goes on.  

Florida State @ Louisville

FSU is a -2.5 favorite as they head on the road to face Louisville, and I honestly really like that line. I think Louisville is a good team as they won a good game against UCF last week on Friday.

However, ZeLO has Florida State as the favorite, though Louisville is expected to cover.

Florida State gets the win (52%) in a nail-biter.

No. 13 Miami @ No. 24 Texas A&M

While this matchup was originally College Gameday’s game of the week, they are no longer following Texas A&M after they lost to Appalachian State. Suddenly, Miami is the higher-ranking team heading into College Station, but still the underdogs, though the line has shrunk by a few points down to 5.5. 

What was a game that ZeLO had been projecting Texas A&M to win comfortably is now a game that ZeLO has Miami winning by a razor-thin margin of .0073%. The spread ZeLO gave the game is -.5 Miami, so Miami should win the contest and, of course, beat the spread.

No. 12 BYU @ No. 25 Oregon

Last weekend BYU played one of the more exciting games against Baylor. A battle of top-25 teams that needed overtime to find a winner. BYU was able to get the narrow win at home but now faces what is arguably a tougher task, go on the road and beat another top-25 team. 

BYU’s new ranking is due primarily to their win over Baylor (not to mention Oregon’s thrashing at the hands of Georgia).

BYU is favored to win their third game of the season (60.3%). Oregon will be a 3.5 dog at home, which certainly feels crazy, but their poor performance against Georgia hurt their rating. It will be up to the Ducks to prove they deserve a better ranking. 

Toledo @ No. 3 Ohio State

This feels like a random add, but Toledo has been one of ZeLO’s favorite teams all preseason and off-season. Now, as the Rockets head to the horseshoe, 31.5 underdogs against the Ohio State juggernaut, all hope seems lost for Toledo.  Or does it?

Do not get me wrong; this is the perfect storm for all the model’s biases, its tendency to pick underdog covers, G5 teams being more potent than they should and the model just randomly liking Toledo. 

ZeLO currently has Ohio State as the favorite, with a 67.5% chance to win the game. Now Ohio State is still an 18.5-point favorite (the difference between the percentage and the spread is likely because I changed the spread formula). 

Ohio State should undoubtedly win, but Toledo has a solid chance to cover, and as we saw last weekend, all the little Group of 5 teams has to do to have a chance is play the game.

No. 11 Michigan State @ Washington

I picked this game not just because I am a Michigander and, by proxy, a Michigan sports fan but because MSU is the underdog in this game.  The Huskies are a 3.5 favorite against the Spartans, boasting two wins against Kent State and Portland State. I have no idea what these two wins tell us about Washington, but Vegas thinks they are significant enough to merit points on a highly ranked team.

Currently, ZeLO has MSU with a 50.8% favorite with a -.5 spread. I think that MSU should be able to take care of this game convincingly, but both ZeLO and Vegas are seeing something I am not, which might make the result worth keeping an eye on.

California @ Notre Dame

Last weekend I made a joke about ZeLO taking Notre Dame to lose against Marshall. Evidently, that joke aged about as well as an egg salad-tuna fish sandwich left out in the ND Stadium parking lot because, lo and behold, ND lost.

And yes, I made a joke about Notre Dame’s performance being so bad that it generated a change in the models operating procedure, but, jokes aside, that was a legitimate reason I made the change.
Originally Notre Dame was classified as a heavy favorite to beat California; it’s a home game for ND, they were a top-20 team and their opponent was a west coast team. Those are great reasons
for ND to easily win any game, especially California.

But given the uncertainty surrounding the team, acting like the team is living up expectations (which were already lower than average) was not an option. 

So now, ND is currently averaging a 6-6 record. Luckily, California is one of those wins; ND has a 65.4% chance of winning this weekend’s matchup. And while that victory might be good news, Cal is currently expected to cover the 10.5 spread, with an expected ND margin of victory at 4.